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Muscle Confusion: Does it work?

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Posted by Adrian K under Weight Training (Strength Training) on 15 April 2013 at 11:00 PM

Muscle Confusion is a phrase used to describe constant cross training, the concept behind Muscle Confusion is that by changing your exercises regularly, your body will not adapt to them thus you shouldn't plateau.

But does this method of training actually work? We've contacted a panel of strength and conditioning coaches, Personal Trainers and sports science academics to find out what's the confusion about Muscle Confusion?

Muscle confusion

Dan John discus throwingDan John has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.

This term goes back to the Hoffman-Weider wars of the late 1950s and it continued until about 1975 or so when "Pumping Iron" showed up and Arnold basically turned all lifting into bodybuilding in the public eye. Hoffman believed you could only achieve a muscular body by practicing the Olympic lifts and then doing some strict movements for the rest of the body. Weider pushed his principles like "Isolation" and "Cheating" as the answer, plus this concept called Muscle Confusion.

With my athletes and myself, we have fixed stars on the horizon like lifting and throwing meets...or football season. To produce the task at the level required, we have to make sure we have a vision of the whole job. Confused muscles would seem to be the antithesis of what I want a discus thrower to have. But, I can see why it would appeal. The phrase sounds like a great fat loss tool...and it might well be...but most of us in the strength game have found that simple progressive resistance to be enough to get our people to our goals.

I'm not for or against this, you certainly have the right to train any way you feel, but rarely do we see people either finish these 90 (or 60) day programs and rarely do we see any proper follow up training after. Dan Martin refers to me as "Mr. 91" as the big question is what to do next.

Muscle Confusion targets in on people who want to work out but can lose interest quickly; a strict strength training program can be overwhelming with the level of commitment and dedication it requires. Muscle Confusion programs will keep workouts varied to keep the participants interested. However, using a fitness program with a set finish date gives the impression of a 'finish-line' to fitness.

Mike Young is the co-owner of Athletic Lab sport performance training center and fitness coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS. In addition to soccer, he has coached 7 US National Champions in the sport of Track & Field and trained World Series and Super Bowl champions. He has a BS in Exercise Physiology, an MS in Coaching Science, and a PhD in Biomechanics. 

Mike Young Athletic Lab

The idea of muscle confusion is based part in truth but isn't as simple and straight forward as most would believe. Variation in training can definitely be beneficial because it can help to spur adaptations. The caveat though, is that moderation is key. Making complete, often random, wholesale changes to a training plan for the sake of 'muscle confusion' will lead to a less than ideal adaptation. There is an overwhelming amount of research and anecdotal evidence to support the use of structured training plans for gains in power, strength and size. These structured plans do introduce variation but it is typically controlled: slight changes in set-rep schemes, manipulation of volumes and intensities over time, intelligent exercise selections, etc.

A training stimulus (session) causes the body to adapt to that stimulus. To get the most out of a training stimulus it's important for it to be seen multiple times within a controlled time span. That way you can actually adapt to it. By constantly switching up the training plan you are always introducing a novel training stimulus and never seeing optimal adaptation. It can work if you're main goal is to keep things interesting and stay motivated but if you are looking for goals in power, strength or size I'd strongly recommend using a more defined training plan

So our panel seem to be in agreement that muscle confusion techniques aren't for beginners; realistically if you are a beginner in strength training then following a program focusing on progression is more likely to produce results than 'changing things up'. But what about the concepts of muscle confusion in regards to trained strength athletes in a plateau?

Nia Shanks Tribesports profileNia Shanks - Lift Like A Girl - explains the 3 reasons why Muscle Confusion techniques can be benefitial to intermediate and advanced strength trainees:

There is some merit to "muscle confusion" in regards to using different exercises, training splits, and techniques, but mostly for intermediate and advanced trainees, not beginners. 

Here are a few reasons:

1) The main goal with strength training is to get stronger (crazy, right?). Once someone enters the intermediate, and definitely advanced, stage of training, strength increases some slower and at smaller increments. For instance, if someone reaches a plateau with dumbbell bench presses, they could switch to incline dumbbell bench presses.

2) Help prevent overuse injuries. Again, this applies to intermediate+ trainees. It is useful to include a variety of exercises to prevent overuse injuries. 

3) Prevent boredom. It's important to have fun with training, and switching things up on occasion - whether it's with different exercises, different workout split, or advanced techniques - is a great way to keep training fun, fresh, and interesting. 

Check out Nia Shank's guest post on Why Women Should Lift Heavy Weights for more insights.

Is the benefits of exercise variation actually due to muscle confusion?

Christian Finn profileChristian Finn holds a Masters degree in Exercise Science, is a certified personal trainer and founder of Muscle Evo:

There is no single definition of muscle confusion that everyone agrees on. Some people will tell you that changing exercises or adding reps constitutes muscle confusion. Others tell you it doesn't. 

Muscle confusion is, for the most part, a gimmick used to sell a popular home workout system.

It's true that the more advanced you get, the more variety you’ll need in terms of sets, reps and effort (how close you train to muscular failure on each set) in order to keep on gaining strength and adding muscle. However, this has nothing to do with “confusing” your muscles. Rather, it’s designed to vary the stress imposed on your body to allow for recovery while still providing a sufficient stimulus for growth.

Rotating exercises has the advantage of 1) a reduction in the risk of "repetitive stress" injuries that come from doing the same exerise week after week as well as 2) an increase in muscle damage.

One problem with repeatedly performing the same exercises is that it eventually reduces exercise-induced muscle damage. Although you don't want too much damage, there's an "optimal" amount of damage, above and below which gains will be compromised. 

Rotating exercises will minimise the repeated bout effect and ensure that you're still creating some muscle damage, which is one of the key "triggers" for growth.

 Have you ever trained using the concept of muscle confusion? Share your experience in the comments below and join the discussion 'Confused about muscle confusion' now!

  • Encourage

    Cags R and Jane H encouraged this.

    Comments

    20130621120711-danfriedberg

    Whenever you do some new resistance exercise, you damage your muscles and they swell up. Swollen muscles look great and they are motivating. These confusion programs make sure that you're always doing something new, so there is always swelling, which motivates you to continue (as well as praise their system). ***[new paragraph]***When you repeatedly "damage" the same muscle, it recovers faster and doesn't show the same swelling for as long, but you get stronger. I've been doing strength training for over a year now, and I've made tremendous gains in strength, but only modest gains in size. ***[new paragraph]***It's all a matter of what's important to you. Do you want to be strong, or do you just want to look good naked?

    Jane H and Adrian K encouraged this.

    20140811112945-cags

    @danfriedberg - good points, I think the whole muscle confusion thing appeals to people like myself who struggle to follow strict strength training programs because it requires a lot of dedication to go and do quite repetitive exercises. I consider myself to be above average strength for my weight, height and gender but credit this strength to practical application of strength in day to day life - whilst lifting in the gym is appealing to some people, I think it takes remarkable commitment to stick to a program. Things like the P90X I don't think are good solutions either - like Dan John said - what happens on the 91st day? Training in a Crossfit style (no strict program of sets, reps and progressive overload) creates what I would consider pretty good practical strength in balance with other elements of fitness.

    encouraged this.

    20130621120711-danfriedberg

    @cags - A friend of mine is into the P90X type stuff, and his wife is a coach for the company. He has at least 4 different "90-day" programs and when he finishes one, he moves on to the next. There's nothing "wrong" with it, just like body-building provides muscle mass with less strength and strength-training provides more strength with less mass. It's all a matter of what your goals are and what motivates you.

    Cags R and Jane H encouraged this.

    20140811112945-cags

    I think that's what I find quite funny about people who are solely focused on strength training - I'd rather be all-round fit than be ridiculously good at one aspect of fitness! Yes, this means I will never win an endurance race and probably won't be entering any powerlifting competitions soon, but I'd rather have a balanced fitness profile. I've heard it said that a certain activity would be 'negative on progress' - as soon as training stops you doing something then I think you need to assess what you're training for

    encouraged this.

    20131126112258-adrian

    Strength training improves performance across the board. Hence why competitive athletes in almost every sport will follow long term strength programs. Doing other activities is only detrimental if you are training for a specific sport and these other activities increase your chance of injury or slow your recovery time. It just comes down to what you want to train for and what you want to achieve.

    encouraged this.

    20131122040327-janeh

    How about people who really like routine, discipline and find change unsettling. Often people with long, stressful hours at work like the routine of their gym workout or their running program and find it therapeutic to fall back on something familiar. I guess it really comes down to what our training goals are.

    Adrian K encouraged this.

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